The Rugby Pod show co-hosts Andy Goode and Jim Hamilton have jumped to the defence of Billy Vunipola amid claims that he is no longer the massive influence on England that he was previously. England’s style of play in their Autumn Nations Cup wins over Georgia, Ireland and Wales, along with last month’s Six Nations title win in Italy, have been taken to task for being limited in attack.
No8 Vunipola, so often the main England ball carrier in the Eddie Jones era, has been singled out for not being as generally prominent. However, the stats don’t suggest he has fallen off a cliff.
He was still the busiest England ball carrier in the pack on the last three Saturdays, making 50 metres off 14 carries against Georgia, 29 metres off seven carries versus Ireland and then a whopping 83 metres from 17 carries against Wales.
The perceived problem is that other pack ball carriers are coming close to his figures. For instance, Jack Willis managed 47 metres from ten carries in round one, Jamie George 24 metres from four round two carries, and Sam Underhill chipped in with 59 metres from eight carries in last weekend’s round three.
Vunipola’s form has provided food for thought, but ex-England out-half Goode doesn’t think criticism of the No8 is acceptable given the team’s changed strategy in recent weeks under Jones.
'It was not that long ago that Eddie Jones’ side were utterly reliant on the big ball-carrying No 8, to the point that he had no natural replacement in the side.'
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 29, 2020
“Billy used to be such a standout performer because he was the main ball carrier, he was the only guy doing it,” said Goode. “Now England have got such a balance to their forward pack. You saw Mako (Vunipola) at the weekend carrying really well again. Underhill carries well, he made the break that effectively led to Henry Slade’s try off Maro’s inside ball. Maro’s carrying.
“All these boys are going as good a job as Billy is. Billy is probably doing it a bit better at times but England aren’t as reliant getting over the gain line as they used to be when Billy was the go-to man. There is more of a balance to the actual ball carry from the front five.
“Jamie George another one, Kyle Sinckler can carry. They’re all proper big carriers that are sharing the workload. Maybe Eddie Jones was a bit of a genius when he put Tom Curry to No8 thinking one day we’re going to have all these back row choices and Billy will be under pressure. But Billy is his main No8. It will take something pretty astonishing for Eddie Jones not to pick Billy Vunipola at No8 this weekend against France and moving forward into the Six Nations.
“I don’t think he is under pressure. People are looking at him because maybe he isn’t playing at the level he was so dominant a couple of years ago. He has had a couple of arm breaks but maybe it’s because Underhill and Curry and other ball carriers are so phenomenal now.”
Co-host Hamilton, the ex-Scotland lock who was a teammate of Vunipola at Saracens, added about the England No8: “One thing I have noticed, and I don’t know whether it is a respect thing because he is related Taulupe Faletau, when he plays against him he is always a little bit off.
“But Billy is a world-class player so we are judging Billy on what Billy was a couple of years ago and defensively teams are so much better in the last year. Look at Ireland against Georgia, they were getting absolutely smashed around the nine/ten channel.
“Billy is running into those channels where in years gone by you made yards all the time just because you are Billy Vunipola – you have got the size, you have got a slight step…. was Billy at the level last Saturday he has been at? No.
“But you look at Curry, look at Underhill, what they bring is a different dimension to the game. Billy is there to carry the ball, to get England over the gain line, to get them on the front foot, but arguably England are playing a different way as well so it doesn’t suit him… the way the game is now it’s suited to defenders and breakdown. They are the players who are standing out.”
Top-quality chat from former French International and Jim's new English teacher @BenjaminKayser on this week's episode?
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— The Rugby Pod (@TheRugbyPod) December 1, 2020
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